Emptiness: The Insight of Equality

Those of you familiar with the Heart Sutra know that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form,” is the most important statement in the text. In one commentary I have on the sutra, an older one titled The Cave of Poison Grass, Seikan Hasegawa, a Rinzai Zen priest, explains the declaration this way:

Sunyata [emptiness] is the beginningless beginning of the world which has two aspects: wisdom, which is emptiness, and love, which is form. Emptiness tells us the sameness, and form tells us the difference. The sameness sees the substance of all forms. Then it can be said that a mountain is not different from an ocean, mountain is ocean; or man is not different from woman, the man is woman. Their value is not different, both are the same. And as humanity, woman and man, the old and young, the poor and the rich, the wise and the foolish, and all such contrasting individuals do not differ; every one has the same respectable value.

It is possible to view emptiness as a “beginningless beginning” because in Buddhism the continuum of consciousness is said to be beginningless; and consciousness arises dependent upon causes and conditions, and Nagarjuna taught that anything which is dependent arising equals emptiness.

Ku: Emptiness
Chinese character for emptiness, calligraphy by Miyamoto Musashi

Hasegawa’s commentary tells us in simple terms not only what lies behind this famous phrase from the sutra but also many of the seemingly paradoxical statements we read in Buddhist literature. The opening sentence of Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra comes to mind: “Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way.”

Emptiness refers to the realm of awakening, but this realm is not separate from the world of suffering. “Form is emptiness” directs us to the path that leads to the transcendence of suffering and awakening, while “emptiness is form” is the reverse path, from awakening to suffering. The point of divergence between these two paths is resolved through non-duality. They are two paths and yet they are not two.

The concept of emptiness is a great equalizer because it shows us how all things are equal in value. It undermines the foundations of hatred, racism, nationalism – all the things that lead to conflict and violence. That’s one reason why emptiness is often called “the insight of equality.”

The Buddha asked, “Manjusri, in what equality do those sentient beings who act with the three poisons abide?”

Manjusri replied, “They abide in the equality of emptiness, signlessness, and wishfulness.”

Maharatnakuta Sutra


Heart Sutra: The Heart Within The Heart

It hardly needs to be said that the Heart Sutra is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras. And it is certainly the shortest of any text called a “sutra.” Kukai, the founder of Japanese Shingon, wrote “while brief it is essential and though concise it is profound.” Kukai maintained that the sutra encompassed all the Buddha’s teachings, or at least, all those in the Mahayana canon, a view shared by a more contemporary teacher, the Korean Jogye Seon master, Seung Sahn:

“The Heart Sutra has only two hundred seventy Chinese characters, yet it contains all of Mahayana Buddhism’s teaching. Inside this sutra is the essence of the Diamond Sutra, the Avatamsaka-sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. It contains the meaning of all the eighty-four thousand sutras.”

As I’ve observed previously, people have a tendency to focus on the sutra’s treatment of emptiness, often at the expense of the other themes, the Bodhisattva path, the practice of compassion, and Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom (the sutra is called the “Heart of Transcendent Wisdom”, after all).

The Heart Sutra is also an exposition on the Two Truths. To refresh our memory on this concept, let’s recall what Nagarjuna wrote in “Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”:

“The teachings of the Buddha are based on two truths, the relative and the ultimate. Those who do not know the distinction between the two do not understand the profound meaning in the teachings of the Buddha.

The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the relative truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, liberation is not possible.”

Over-emphasizing the teaching of emptiness in the Heart Sutra is an example of misunderstanding the Two Truths. It’s seizing the ultimate while neglecting the relative, often a source of confusion.

Emptiness by itself is neither ultimate reality nor ultimate truth; rather it refers to the relative truth. This is what the sutra means by “Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form,” telling us that emptiness is simply looking at phenomena from a different perspective – things do exist but in combination with causes and conditions. We know that emptiness itself is relative because it, too, is empty (sunyata-sunyata).

Through the series of negations (“Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose . . . no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.”) the Heart Sutra denies all that Buddhism holds sacred. Ultimately, all Buddhist doctrine is relative, conventional truth, empty.

But then the sutra turns around and negates the negations, pointing to Transcendent Wisdom and the Bodhisattva Path: “Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita . . . and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.” Although all that is relative is empty, without the relative, the conventional, there is no path to the ultimate.

It is said that when Transcendent Wisdom is in harmony with emptiness-knowledge and compassion, there is suffering, but no sufferer; there remains no thinker, no thought: this is the state of non-duality, the bodhicitta (thought of awakening), and the luminous truth.

When the Heart Sutra refers to emptiness, it’s actually in a form of shorthand. What the sutra is saying “empty of self-being” (sunyata-svabhava), and this, Nagarjuna says, is the true nature of all phenomena. Without that which is empty, there is no emptiness.

Pretty heady stuff, or as Nagarjuna put it, “extremely profound and difficult to understand.” How does it relate to our daily lives? Frederick Streng says emptiness is ‘freedom.” In Emptiness, A Study in Religious Meaning, he wrote,

This is a freedom which applies to every moment of existence, not to special moments of mystical escape to another level of being, nor to the freedom attained by priestly activity at a sacred time and place . . . To know things as they actually are, frees the mind of presuppositions and the emotions from attachments. Thus this freedom is also a purification process; it removes such evils as hated, fear, greed, or nimiety . . .

In removing such hindrances there is no fear and no illusion, as the Heart Sutra states. The path is cleared and there is nothing to prevent us from engaging wholeheartedly in the practice of wisdom and compassion, the Heart Sutra’s ‘ultimate’ truth.

“The true heart is wisdom; wisdom is the true heart. Because prajna can be translated “true heart,” the two hundred fifty or so words of this sutra are the heart within the heart – the heart within the six hundred chapters of the prajna text of the Great Prajna Sutra”.

-Hsuan Hua, Ch’an Buddhist teacher


Using the Heart Sutra

I once attended a class on the Heart Sutra at a Zen center and the teacher stated how she had been studying the sutra for forty years and was just then beginning to get a firm grasp on it. It’s amazing how a text that is so concise, employing so few words, can be as broad and complex as it is; a complete survey, negation and then affirmation of all Buddhist teachings.

Last week, I mentioned Donald S. Lopez and his book, The Heart Sutra Explained, which he published in 1988. Almost a decade later, in 1996, he expanded on the work in Elaborations of Emptiness Uses of the Heart Sutra. In the introduction he wrote,

Perhaps no other Buddhist text, in either speech or writing, has been more popular than the Heart Sutra. The Lotus and the Sukhavativyuha* have been more influential in East Asia in the inspiration of doctrine and art. But the presence of the Heart Sutra has been more pervasive. It is recited daily in Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean temples and monasteries, and we have evidence of its recitation in India.”

In Elaborations of Emptiness, Lopez examines different uses of the sutra; as a mantra, an exorcism text, a meditation guide, and as philosophical text, and he includes translations of eight extant Indian commentaries.

HeartSutra-WordCloud04bA very effective use of the Heart Sutra is simply to recite it daily and reflect on the sutra’s words. Reciting the sutra is easy. Reflecting on it’s words, not so simple, especially for those new to the sutra. When first encountering the Heart Sutra (Prajna-Paramita Hrdaya/Heart of Transcendent Wisdom), it may seem overwhelming, or so cryptic as to be dense.

Attending a class, like I did, on the Heart Sutra is always a good idea, and there are a number of good books on the sutra. (A list of those I recommend at the end of the post.)

One excellent place to begin is found within the sutra itself, with the mantra, gate gate paragate parasam gate bodhi svaha. It is an exhortation to expand our consciousness, and is the luminous gateway to the central teaching of the sutra. The Heart Sutra asks us to think differently, to open our minds and let our thoughts “go beyond.” In one of the commentaries that Lopez translates, Vajrapana noted,

Gate, gate: “gone, gone”; all mindfulness has gone [to be] like illusions. Paragate: “gone beyond”; beyond mindfulness, one goes beyond to emptiness. Parasamgate: “gone completely beyond”; beyond the illusion-like and emptiness, one goes beyond signlessness. Bodhi svaha: “become enlightened”; having purified the afflictions and all objects of knowledge, one transcends awareness.”

But this is not merely an exercise in obtaining knowledge and then tossing it aside in order to abide in some entranced, transmundane state. That’s not what Prajna-Paramita, or Transcendental Wisdom, signifies. Srisimha wrote, “Gate [gone] beyond . . . is gone for one’s own welfare. The [second] gate means gone also for the welfare of others . . .”, and so, as Lopez himself says, “The mantra thus seems to connote progression, movement toward a goal,” and that goal is not a realization of emptiness, as many suppose, for emptiness is but a step toward the ultimate goal of Bodhisattvahood.

The sutra is a road map for the bodhisattva path. Srisimha continues: “Parasamgate [means] that one has [gone] to the supreme state or perfected the welfare of others and the compassion observing [others] arises . . . Bodhi is uninterrupted compassion arising as the means of the perfection of wisdom [Prajna-Paramita] . . . Svaha means the self-liberation of the [mind] . . .”

The mind of the bodhisattva, who strives for both the welfare of self and others, should be a mind that sees things differently, thinks differently, outside the box, outside sensations, forms, and concepts. And the heart of the bodhisattva, the great loving heart, is the heart of the Heart Sutra.

Recommended Books: One of the best is Heart of the Universe by Mu Soeng Sunim. It’s very short and offers an excellent explanation of emptiness from the side of quantum physics. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding is also short and captures the more positive spirit of the sutra. Lopez’s Elaborations on Emptiness is a rather scholarly presentation from the viewpoint of Indian Buddhism. Red Pine’s The Heart Sutra and There Is No Suffering: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Master Sheng Yen and Chan Master Sheng-yen. Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings is somewhat light, but definitely not a waste of time.

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* Larger Sutra on Amida Buddha


Reversing the Light to Shine Within

In my readings of Buddhist and Taoist literature over the years, I have often run across variations of a certain phrase, “turning the light around,” translated differently with slight changes of meaning changes depending on the context. The phrase comes from the Chinese huiguang, “turn around light”.

MP8776In the Taoist classic The Secret of the Golden Flower (as translated by Thomas Cleary, 1991), “turning the light around is a means of refining the higher soul, which is a means of preserving the spirit, which is a means of controlling the lower soul, which is a means of interrupting consciousness.” In Ch’an, originally known as the Inner Light School, it’s a term for the process of meditation: “Now when you turn the light around to shine inward, the mind is not aroused by things.” (Lu Yan 829–874).

Huiguang is also linked in Ch’an to hua-t’ou, literally “source” and essentially refers to the mind in its natural state undisturbed by thought, but often associated with kung-an (Jpn. koan) practice. In the Korean Zen of Chinul, the phrase is “tracing back the radiance,”* a specific practice of seeing the radiant nature of the mind within the present moment and then tracing the radiance back to its source. Chinul connects the practice to a method associated with Avalokitesvara (“Hearer of the Cries of the World”) of tracing hearing back to its source within the mind.

Hsuan Hua (1918-1995), the great Chinese teacher who played a leading role in bringing Ch’an to America during the 20th Century, presents a different take on this phrase, one that shines a bit more directly on our state of mind in daily life, in his commentary, “The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra.”  In this treatment of the Heart Sutra, Hsuan Hua comments on a line or few words from the text with a verse he composed and then a short explanation. Here he analyzes the first three words of the “shorter” Heart Sutra:

When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva


Reversing the light to shine within,
Avalokiteshvara enlightens all the sentient beings; thus he is a Bodhisattva.
His mind is thus, thus, unmoving, a superior one at peace;
With total understanding of the ever-shining, he is host and master.
Six types of psychic powers are an ordinary matter,
And even less can the winds and rains of the eight directions cause alarm.
He rolls it up and secretly hides it away;
And lets it go to fill the entire world.


The name Avalokiteshvara is Sanskrit; in Chinese it is rendered guan zi zai, “Contemplating Ease”. To be at ease is to be happy about everything and to be without worries or obstacles. To be unimpeded is to contemplate ease. If you are impeded, then you are not contemplating ease. Reversing the light to shine within is contemplating ease. If you don’t reverse the light to shine within, you’re not contemplating ease.

What is meant by “reversing the light to shine within”? Regardless of what the situation is, examine yourself. If someone has wronged you, you should think to yourself, “Basically, I was wrong.”

If you say, “When people don’t act properly toward me, I don’t look to see whether I’m right myself; I just smash them right away, smash their heads in so that blood flows” – then you haven’t won a victory, but have only shown your complete lack of principles and wisdom. To reverse the light to shine within is to have principles and wisdom. Reverse the light and contemplate whether or not you are at ease.

I will explain the two characters zi zai, which together mean “ease”. The zi is oneself, and the zai is where one is. I’ll say it word for word. Are you right here (zai), or aren’t you? In other words, do you have false thoughts, or not? If one has false thoughts, then one (zi) is not right here. It’s very simple. To reverse the light to shine within is simply to see whether you have false thoughts. If you have false thoughts, then you aren’t at ease. If you don’t have false thoughts, then you are at ease. That’s how wonderful it is.

“The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra” with “Verses Without A Stand” and Prose Commentary of the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, English translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society

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* Robert E. Buswell, Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen, University of Hawaii Press, 1991


The Color of Sky

The Heart Sutra says, “Form is not different from emptiness; emptiness is not different from form.” It is one of the most famous phrases in Buddhism, and for many one of the most confusing.

Occasionally, when I run across an English version of the sutra by an Asian translator, I will find the word “color” instead of “form”. This is because they understand that in addition to “form”, the Sanskrit term rupa also means “color.” If we dig a little into the meanings of sunyata, commonly translated as “emptiness”, we find that it also has the meaning of “sky.”

It is possible, then, to render the famous phrase in this manner:

Color is not different from sky; sky is not different from color.”

MP14063When we look up, we see the sky. Its color is blue. Therefore, we know the sky is there. Or, so we think. Actually, the sky has no color. The blue is an illusion caused by the scattering of sunlight through the prism of tiny molecules of air in the Earth’s atmosphere. Blue is scattered more than other colors, and this is why the sky appears to be blue. In reality, the sky is empty. It is just space.

Space (akasa) is not really anything, other than a concept, because it has no substance, no form, no color. Sky is merely a conventional designation for space, which lacking any substance, represents emptiness, meaning the lack of an intrinsic essence or self-ness within existing things. Yet, even while we can say that space has no intrinsic essence, no substance, we cannot say that space does not exist.

Color, or form, is just the appearance of color, of form. For instance, the form of a human being is merely the appearance of a human form, for the human being’s mass is mostly water, H20, and carbon. However, when we look at another person, we do not see those things; rather, what we appear to see is form. Likewise, when we look up, we do not see space, we see blue sky.

Form is one of the five skandhas or aggregates, along with sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness. According to Buddhist philosophy, these five aggregates make up the entity of the human being. When the sutra says that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, it next mentions that the other four aggregates also share this relationship.

In Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, we find a sentence remarkably similar in structure to the one in the Heart Sutra:

The self is not the aggregates (na atma skandhah); the self is not different from the aggregates (na atma skandebhyo ‘nyah).”

Self is like color. Actually, we do not deny the existence of self; we only deny the existence of a self that is eternal, unchanging, and independent. That kind of self is an illusion. Because we have a personality, a body, a mind, we grasp at the appearance of the eternal, unchanging, independent self. We come to believe it is as real as the sky is blue.

The aggregates, owing to their lack of absoluteness and their relativity, are like space. Form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness, none of these has any substance, and yet, as with space, we cannot say they do not exist.

Nagarjuna mentions that to say anything about the differences or sameness of color and sky, form and emptiness, self and aggregates, is to hold an exclusive view, either of eternalism or nihilism. It was for that reason, he said, the Buddha taught the Middle Way, the path between extremes, the path of interdependency.

Good luck and believe me, dearest Doc – it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.”

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.”

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore